Basketball games

As the regular season nears an end, Northern Kentucky University’s men’s basketball team looks to continue to bolster their record and improve before the postseason begins. In the previous two games, the Norse did just that, winning both games by a combined point-differential of 26 points.

On Feb. 16, then-No. 15 NKU traveled down to Owensboro, Ky., to take on then-No. 12 Kentucky Wesleyan. It would be the last visit down to Owensboro for NKU, who is moving to Division I next year. Before Thursday’s game, NKU had posted a 33-46 overall record against the Pumas, including a 74-57 home loss on Jan. 26. Their second game this season against the Pumas, however, would be a different story.

On the way to a 67-55 win, NKU was able to shoot 51.7 percent from the field in the first half, and held Kentucky Wesleyan (now ranked No. 19) to 43.4 percent from the field. The Norse led 39-26 at the end of the half.

Head coach Dave Bezold was quite proud of the way his players performed.

“We played outstanding in the first half, both offensively and defensively,” Bezold said. “Last time we played them at our place, they really took it to us. We were awful defensively, and gave an uninspiring effort against them. But we improved, and responded with a really great performance the next time.”

Junior forward Eshaunte Jones led the way for the Norse with 15 points, while junior guard Ethan Faulkner added six assists to the mix. Senior center DeAndre Nealy and sophomore guard Chad Jackson both had 11 points on the day, while Nealy added three blocks to his total on the season, which stood at 71 at the time.

“It was just an overall great effort by our players on Thursday,” Bezold said. “You really got to give them credit, considering how great of a team Kentucky Wesleyan has down there.”

After Thursday’s game, the Norse had little time to rest up, as they had another tough GLVC opponent waiting for them on Saturday. Then-No. 11 Southern Indiana came up to The Bank of Kentucky Center on Feb. 18, just three weeks after the Screaming Eagles dealt the Norse a heartbreaking loss in Evansville, Ind. In that game, USI went on a 16-3 run in the final 3:43 to beat NKU 69-68. The Norse looked to avenge this game, as well.

NKU put on another defensive effort, holding the Screaming Eagles to just 37.5 percent from the field, and forcing them into 21 total turnovers in a 69-55 win. The defensive prowess of the team was capitalized with Nealy’s three blocks. This put his overall total blocks of the year at 74, which surpassed NKU’s previous record of 73 blocks held by Patrick Holt during the 1985-86 season. Nealy’s record was well known throughout the BOKC, as the arena erupted with thunderous applause as soon as he earned his third block with 4:45 left in the game.

“It feels great to do it in front of these fans here,” Nealy said. “They come out to support us all year, so I’m glad I was able to give them that.”

Nealy also got it done on the offensive side of the court, leading the way for his team with 16 points. Faulkner and Jones also scored double-digit points, scoring 12 and 11, respectively. Jackson added four steals with his contribution, while freshman guard Ryan Flemming had five steals.

Bezold was impressed again, as it was the second straight win over a top-20 team in the nation (USI is currently No. 9).

“We’ve just been getting better and better as a team, especially defensively, in the last couple of weeks,” Bezold said. “We played them better this time near the end of the game than we did last time, and really, at this point in the season, you’ve got to know how to play tremendous defense throughout the game in order to win. I thought we did an excellent job of that in this game.”

The win guaranteed the Norse an automatic first-round bye in the upcoming GLVC tournament, and improved the team’s record against ranked opponents to 3-3 on the year.

With one game remaining on the season, NKU will face possibly its toughest challenge to close out the year: a home game against No. 2 Bellarmine on Thursday. The last time the Norse faced the Knights was on the road at Louisville, Ky., where it lost a close 64-60 game. It will just be one more game the Norse will look to avenge at home.

“It’s going to be electric up here,” Bezold said. “I anticipate one heck of a basketball game. We’re trying to figure out, not only are we good enough to beat a couple of good basketball teams, but are we good enough to beat the best team? I think we are, and I really believe this team is going to get it done on Thursday.”